Fayes T Kantawala confronts the reality of a global pandemic and encourages fellow Pakistanis to do the same soon

My flight landed in New York shortly before world governments began closing their borders but I could already see small changes. Usually crowded airports were empty; crew and officers all wore gloves and masks, preferring you hold your own documents up to them for inspection. The often crowded plane from Dubai barely had a few dozen people in it - total - and US border control was practically empty.

I landed in a country on the precipice of a panic attack. My taxi ride home usually takes about 40 minutes but I got here in 20 because of empty roads. The always-full sidewalks were deserted, roads empty except for shoals of unoccupied taxis scouring in vain for paying passengers. The tall buildings of the cityscape, usually twinkling with lights, were all darkened. Most larger agencies and corporations had already told their workers to self-quarantine – so much so that everyone I knew with a day job was already working from home.

By the time I went to my local grocery store the next morning, there was already an hour-long line to check out. Whole shelves were empty and there was no meat, fish, cleaning products or batteries. Thats when I got worried and began walking around the empty streets like a waif. Life in New York City can often feel like a movie mainly because so many of them are shot here. That can be lovely, like when recognize a bench from your favorite rom-com scene, or remember your favorite actors dancing under that tree in Central Park. But the flip side is that NY is also the set of practically every apocalyptic movie ever made, and the sight of its streets empty and stores shuttered is decidedly and completely terrifying. Everywhere around me people were panic-bulk-buying, running with empty bags to delis and convenience stores for that last roll of toilet paper or morsel of food. At this rate I’d be stuck eating cat food for the next three months.
NY is also the set of practically every apocalyptic movie ever made, and the sight of its streets empty and stores shuttered is decidedly and completely terrifying

“Ugh,” I said when I saw the cat food was sold out at the fourth deli. “White people.”

That’s when an idea struck me, and I ran two blocks south into the closest desi grocery store. It was like stepping through a portal into pandemic heaven. There was no panic in here, only fully stocked shelves of daal, rice, chutney and spices – all sitting placidly in uncrowded aisles listing to sitar music.

“Can you believe it?” an older white lady said to me from across the aisle. A tear streamed down her wrinkled cheek and she held up a small bottle in her tiny palm. “They even have hand sanitizer!”

I smiled in a way that was equal parts “I’m glad, be safe” and “Stay the **** away from me grandma these are dangerous times.”

By the time I got back home with a year’s supply of daal and hing, the emails of closures began pouring through. First large public places like colleges, museums, cinemas and movie theatres began shutting down. Then they cancelled sports and conferences and smaller business. By Sunday night all bars closed and restaurants became delivery-only. I think it is only a matter of time until all shops are ordered closed.

I sat at home in solitude waiting for a coherent strategy to be announced by the US government. Surely the United States had a plan in place for a pandemic, right? A lab somewhere deep underground which springs into action at the first hunt of a sneeze?


It turns out that we have been working on the myth that the machinery of America is strong enough to withstand a man-child like Trump running it for four years without doing long-lasting, irreversible damage.

So. Wrong.

The Corona virus outbreak is the first time the world has seen America essentially leaderless and rudderless during a world crisis. People feel scared, ill-informed and abandoned. It has changed the social fabric so quickly and so completely that people still have whiplash. Suddenly things we assumed were intractable are now universally accepted: yes, you can work from home; yes, you can take a bottle of water on the plane without it blowing up; yes, it is important to have impartial facts on the news because not everything is opinion.

In less than a week the conversation of universal healthcare. - something that has obsessed and scared Americans for years - has gone from a hot debate to a moot point. That shift is incalculably large. It has removed the noise of reactionary, defensive stupidity from the debate of rational long-term planning. In the face of a common biological threat, things like racism, xenephobia and trade wars just don’t work. Contradicting science simply because that’s what you think your religion tells you is absurd - demonstrably so. Praying to deities wont change the laws of contagion, and not wanting to know the facts because they are incompatible with one’s delusions will only kill people faster. Pakistan should remember this before assuring self-proclaimed caretakers of religion that mosques will remain open.

Above all, the flaw in the logic of America’s unique obsession with capitalism has been shown in all its scaly horror. The risk of running your country like a business, then, is that eventually your business can fail. You country can’t.

I am left feeling like my grandparents told me they felt during things like the World Wars or Partition: a confusing mix of uncertainty, fear, loss of control, worry, pragmatism and hope. The ground below me is shifting and the only comfort I can see is that for the first time, none of us is alone.Above all, let me say: a week ago I was in Pakistan and thought this virus wasn’t a big deal. I assure you, it is. I’ve seen hints of what’s coming and Pakistan is not prepared for it. Please treat it as real.

Stay Safe, Wash your hands, Stay informed.

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